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  • Will Fuel Efficient Cars Keep Sprawl Going?

    by Jeff Tyndall

    With the popularity of hybrid vehicles and increased availability of those silly little roller skates called Smart Cars, fuel efficient cars are as abundant as they were in the 1980′s. What is so troubling is the fact that even though today’s vehicles as a whole are more fuel efficient than their counterparts were even 10 years ago overall models that capable of 40+MPG Highway have decreased. There are seven models in 2009/2010 that get more than 40+ MPG highway; they are the Prius, Civic Hybrid, Insight, Smart, Audi A3 Diesel, VW Golf Diesel, & VW Jetta Diesel. For comparison in 1986 there were 14 models of cars capable of 40+ MPG Highway. The Chevrolet Sprint led the way that year with a still jaw dropping 54MPG. Today the Toyota Prius leads the way at 48MPG.

    The chart, compiled by myself, from data available at www.fueleconomydb.com and with 2009/2010 specs from www.fueleconomy.gov, shows the amount of vehicle models sold which got 40+ Miles Per Gallon (MPG), the amount which got 50+ if any, and the leading model for that year and its MPG. As you can see the amount of 40+ MPG fuel efficient vehicles fluctuates yearly with the most being 1985 and a string of double digit models in the early 2000′s. But what is most concerning to me is the steady decline in top end MPG, except for the Honda Insight, which has been steadily declining. Even today’s hybrid Prius’ can’t match the efficiency of the Geo Metro gas only cars of 20 years ago. Where is our technological progress?



    As you probably know, suburban sprawl has been fueled by the personal automobile and funded by the Federal Government. As Lewis Mumford noted, “Far from supplementing public transit, the private motor car became largely a clumsy substitute for it.” Using some quick math, the cost of ownership excluding car payments but including fuel, regular maintenance, and insurance is around $2,500 – $3,000 per year per vehicle owned. Keeping the costs in 2009 dollars, the cost of operating a top end fuel efficient vehicle from 1985 – now is about 50% higher.

    Suburban sprawl is fueled by the automobile use and affordable, dare I say cheap, gasoline. The cost of gasoline is the variable in the equation. If gasoline rises by a given amount the total cost of operating a vehicle and cost per mile driven will naturally increase. I believe it would be a fair assessment to say that if the cost of commuting and driving to a suburban home increases the attractiveness of a home closer to work and amenities increases as well. However, with the increase in fuel efficiency, and I’m not saying it is a bad thing, the cost per mile (barring a sudden spike in fuel costs as was seen the summer of 2008) should remain at the current low level.

    Fuel efficient cars are important, I believe there is much more we can do and I do NOT believe the answer is hybrids or electric cars. How did could cars in the 1980′s with 1970′s technology go 50+ MPG but today we can only squeeze out 36MPG from a Toyota Yaris, the highest rated non hybrid in 2007? I know every car now comes equipped with AC and power everything, but you cannot convince me that the gasoline technology hasn’t advanced in 25 years!?!

    As for suburban sprawl, hybrids and fuel efficient cars are not advertised to shrink the suburbs but I fear an unintended consequence of increased fuel efficiency is the business as usual approach to green field subdivision construction and a lack of concentration on infill and compact downtown development which is also needed. Again, I think increased fuel efficiency is great, and is a step in the right direction to reduce our consumption of foreign oil and greenhouse gas emissions, but the impact from an economic point of view on our landscape can be devastating unless we encourage compact development centered around public transit or places of employment to reduce our miles per vehicle as a whole.

    Jeff Tyndall is a planner in Jacksonville, North Carolina. He maintains the Pioneer Planning, where this article appeared on October 29, 2009.

    Comments 10 Comments
    1. ColoGI's avatar
      ColoGI -
      Quote Originally posted by Dan View post
      I think it is likely that efficiencies all over can help people with their location choice. If a McSuburb is ~efficient and similar in costs to a closer-in choice that's fine too, right? Our jobs will be more temporary in the future, so location choice wrt live-work gap will be less of a factor - so we'll necessarily need more efficient transport. I can't change human nature and if there is a percentage of the population who wants to avoid people, I can't change that. That is human nature. If they are forced to migrate to a place with more people due to cost, that is a choice. Just a thought.
    1. jsk1983's avatar
      jsk1983 -
      The exurbs actually have shorter commutes than many city neighborhoods in Chicago. People that actually commute all the way to the loop may have 1.5-2 hour commutes, but there's a lot of employment out in the suburbs and I think that's where most exurbanites work.
    1. Linda_D's avatar
      Linda_D -
      I think that jsk1983 makes a pertinent fact: there are a lot of jobs outside city boundaries and even more within city boundaries but outside of the city center. The model of suburbanites all commuting into the city center for their jobs has probably never, ever been true, and that's gotten even less true as suburbs have matured and diversified. One of the big problems for poor people living in inner city neighborhoods seeking jobs is that so many jobs are located in the suburbs but public transit goes primarily to the CBD -- it's a classic "you can't get there from here" situation. It's also very common today for people to commute from one suburb to another, or from exurbia into a suburb.
    1. DetroitPlanner's avatar
      DetroitPlanner -
      There is a kernel of truth to that arguement. If electric cars become more prevelant, the reverse will be true. Even with the Volt its much less expensive to run it off of its charge than off of the gasoline engine that charges the batteries. This should make people want to live closer to work/cultural centers.

      I would take a Toyota Prius over a Chevy/Geo Metro any day. You can't really compare the two. One is uber-tiny and can only seat 2 comfortably while the Prius seats five comfortably. Cars 25 years ago were woefully underpowered and cars of today in my opinion have too much power. Who needs a Caddy station wagon that has a 650 HP engine? (though it would be cool!)
    1. TerraSapient's avatar
      TerraSapient -
      I actually use to own a Geo Metro. I still think it was the best car I have ever owned. Contrary to popular opinion, it seated 4 comfortably and I could drive it from the east coast to the west coast for about $200 (in late 90s/early 00s). It also ran perfectly for the 8 years I owned it without a single major mechanical problem, just regular maintenance and only cost me about $6,500. This thread, however, isn't about the superior quality of Metro. Though I sympathize that more fuel efficient technologies may continue to stimulate sprawl, I think the rising cost of petroleum and our complete dependence on it for everything in our lives other than just gasoline will continue to help curb it. We still use petroleum based technologies to mass produce housing in green fields. This mass production is what makes development of this nature lucrative.
    1. Howl's avatar
      Howl -
      Another way to look at the whole picture is to ask: What needs to happen in order for sprawl to survive? If it is going to survive there needs to be more fuel efficient cars, or cars that run on alternative energy sources, as the article says, but congestion is another issue. To solve the congestion problem you could further de-centralize employment areas, which will distribute the traffic around the city better, but that will only help so much. If people don’t chose to live near their place of employment then you may end up with people driving farther (all the way across the city) to get to their jobs. Dispersing the employment areas may require widening, or building, new highways and roads. Incentivizing carpooling or staggered work start times could help as well. Another technical solution is to develop cars that take up less space on the highways – in other words, cars that are physically or electronically connected to the car in front and behind them in order to allow higher speeds with less separation distance. Parking also has to be considered – underground or multi-level above ground parking structures will need to become more common.
    1. ColoGI's avatar
      ColoGI -
      Quote Originally posted by Howl View post
      o If people don’t chose to live near their place of employment then you may end up with people driving farther (all the way across the city) to get to their jobs.

      o in other words, cars that are physically or electronically connected to the car in front and behind them in order to allow higher speeds with less separation distance. Parking also has to be considered – underground or multi-level above ground parking structures will need to become more common.
      The analysis is sound, the premise that such resources and cheap energy will be available for that to happen IMHO is not. If we continue down this path we're on, most people's jobs will be temporary and few will be able to choose where to live. Free money to underground parking will be rare as well. My .02.

      [/ecologist's hat]
    1. Linda_D's avatar
      Linda_D -
      Actually, I think that proximity to work is an important factor for most people, and, all things being equal, most do choose to live fairly near where they work, and that's probably been true for a long time. I think that's that why in some growing metros new homes in developments in the exurbs are much cheaper than existing homes in near-in areas. It's also why some city and first ring suburban neighborhoods thrive when "experts" say that they shouldn't: they offer most of what most people are looking for with shorter commutes.

      I think that the actual percentage of people who choose to live 25-30 miles or more from work simply because they want a particular life-style is relatively small. I think more people commute a significant distance to work because of housing affordability or an employment situation such as taking a new job than anything else.
    1. ColoGI's avatar
      ColoGI -
      Quote Originally posted by Linda_D View post
      Actually, I think that proximity to work is an important factor for most people, and, all things being equal, most do choose to live fairly near where they work, and that's probably been true for a long time. .
      Right. But now and likely in the future if there aren't radical changes away from a FIRE- and capital-dominated economy, owning a house will be an increasing liability in an all-jobs-are-temporary society. Renting will be more common to be flexible enough to chase work around, and maybe you can rent close to work if you are a family unit and individuals have only one job. Resources will be more expensive so cheap anything will be a rarity.

      It sure would be nice if scarcity drives thoughtful and more widespread formal planning, but who knows how we will conduct our affairs in the future...
    1. JusticeZero's avatar
      JusticeZero -
      How are you defining sprawl, exactly? That's actually a lot more of a sticking point than it sounds.Is Los Angeles an example of sprawl? It lacks most of the attributes usually associated with sprawl. Is the suburbia in the far southeast of Melbourne sprawl? It gets accused of being that a lot.. It was developed before cars though, and the land use is downright New Urbanist, even though nobody seems to want to walk there. Is that highly developed neighborhood near the CBD an example of sprawl? It used to be an edge city.Furthermore, are you certain that those cars are all measuring MPG in the same way? I'm not certain that the methodology remained static.